My husband Michael, the engineer (aerospace, not trains), is the designer for all our sons’ birthday cakes. He’s a big fan of Duff Goldman and watches Ace of Cakes often trying to pick up any tips he can. We only tackle cakes like this three times a year and we are definitely not pros. I bake the cakes and whip up the frosting and fondant and he does all the assembly and decorative work. Here’s his story on how we made the Toby train birthday cake.
A week before our oldest son’s birthday we thought we were going to make a monster truck cake which he had been talking up for weeks, but before that he had talked about a Penguins of Madagascar cake, which admittedly was going to be difficult. Then he abruptly changed his mind and said with certainty that he wanted a Toby train cake. We thought he might have been influenced by seeing his brother’s Percy cake back in September, as we later found out when presenting the our final creation that Toby was number seven and he was turning seven. Ah the logic of youth…
Fortunately I was able to leverage my experience with the Percy cake on this venture, and once again we found our model in the boys’ train play area. The great advantage of using the model and the foam base is that it can easily be scaled up or down based on the predicted size of the party. Since we were going to have a smaller crowd for this event we scaled the cake down a bit. With Toby being rather square, we decided two 9 by 13 chocolate cakes would be the amount we needed.
Measuring Toby, I determined we needed a cake platform of 12 long, 5 inches wide, and ran everything else based on these calculations. Using the one inch foam sheets available at your local home supply store, I cut out three 12-inch x 5-inch blocks, and a couple of 3 x 3 pieces to act as supports between the wheels. This time I also decided to carve out foam wheels instead of using rice crispy treats, which didn’t work as well as we hoped for the Percy cake. For the wheels I started out with two, 4-inch squares and then using an X-acto or box cutter shaved them into 4-inch circles using a plastic lid of the same size to pencil trace a guide line on the foam. Since Toby’s wheels are concealed I cut the two circles in half to have four half wheels.
Using masking tape and two chopsticks I assembled the base. These could also be glued if you have time to work ahead. This time we also cut a piece of cardboard the same size of the cake base, enveloped it in plastic wrap to function as a barrier between the cake and the foam. I taped this on top of the foam base.
I then coated the entire base in frosting, using black for the wheels and gray for the layers between the wheels and the cardboard platform. Holding the chop stick stubs came in handy for this part. Be sure to coat all the foam including the underside because touching up areas that show through at the end after the cake is assembled is extremely difficult.
A NOTE of CAUTION here: I strongly recommend you place the base on the final serving tray before assembling the cake layers above. These creations have a tendency to be top heavy and I nearly lost my completed cake four hours later while trying to transfer it from the construction area to the serving plate. We think pizza pans are ideal for this, but you can also use plywood covered with aluminum foil. A thick decorator plastic would also work, many versions are available at local hobby/arts and crafts stores.
We used standard white butter cream between the layers because we had quite a bit extra, but chocolate would be better. I stacked three half sheets and trimmed the top to give is a bit of a curve. Since Toby’s exterior is made of wood we coated the outside of the cake in chocolate frosting, including the top. I then rolled out a layer of gray fondant for the top, then also used the same fondant for the face.
I still find making the face one of the hardest parts of the Thomas train cakes. This time we added some canola oil to the exterior to help with the cracking we had on the Percy cake. I tried a slightly different method this time, but still wasn’t entirely happy with the result as Toby’s face still sagged and cracked. If I do another engine cake I’ll use oil or Karo syrup to keep the face smooth and I will also play with it for a week or so ahead of time to get it right, maybe practicing with molding clay first then with fondant. One thing that does help with cracking and sagging is to put the face on the cake at the last minute before presenting and serving. Modeling chocolate might also work but we would need to spend some time researching this.
I finished up the detail work using colored frosting and a Wilton #3 tip. Something we wish we had done is rake the frosting with a fork to make it look more like a wood exterior, but we have noted that for next time.
Below are the frosting quantities, which may vary slightly depending on how thick you apply it. You can make extra frosting and have leftovers for other uses, or you can start with the quantities listed and make more if needed. If you make two full batches of vanilla buttercream you should have plenty with a little left over. We find using Wilton frosting colors help keep the colors consistent if you have to make another batch. Colors do tend to darken after resting a day.
- 1-1/2 batches of chocolate frosting (see below). (We ended up using vanilla buttercream between the layers because we had extra and didn’t want it to go to waste, but chocolate is definitely better.)
- 1-1/2 cups (1/2 batch) of vanilla buttercream tinted gray, use a toothpick dipped in black Wilton color and add slowly.
- 3 cups (1 batch) of vanilla buttercream, tinted black.
- 1/4 cup vanilla buttercream, tinted yellow (for number 7).
- 1/4 cup vanilla buttercream, tinted red (for number 7).
Plan Ahead Tips
- Make the marshmallow fondant up to 30 days ahead. Keep wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and store in dry place (not refrigerator).
- Bake the cakes up to one day before and allow them to cool completely. Freezing them for about 30 minutes before assembly makes them easier to carve.
- Make the frosting up to three days before. Mix one batch at a time and color as you go. Cover the surface with plastic wrap and store in the refrigerator. Allow to come to room temperature before frosting the cake.
A Word on Fondant
You can use fondant for the cake rather than buttercream, either purchased or homemade. Zoe of Zoe Bakes (one of my favorite bakers) has a tried and true recipe for homemade fondant or you can use the marshmallow fondant recipe below. Fondant gives the cake a professional-looking, sleek, smooth surface, but no one in our family will eat it, so that’s why we skip it.
(A tired Michael around 2 a.m.)
[Updated January 18, 2011.]
TOBY TRAIN BIRTHDAY CAKE
Serves 20 to 30, possibly more depending on serving sizes.
Toby train toy or book with photo
2 (9×13) cake pans, greased with a layer of parchment in the bottom
stand mixer with paddle attachment (or hand mixer and large bowl)
foam, approximately 2 feet (61 cm) x 3 feet (91 cm)
box cutter or X-Acto knife
32-ounce yogurt container lid (as pattern for the wheels)
1 large pizza pan or serving platter
5 #3 piping tips + couplers
5 quart-sized freezer bags (for piping frosting)
angled frosting spatula
toothpicks (for portioning gel colors)
chocolate cake or other cake of your choice (make 2 9×13 cakes)
chocolate frosting (1-1/2 batches, no shortening or with shortening, see below) *We only use shortening when the weather is really hot and humid.
vanilla frosting (no shortening, make 2 batches) OR
vanilla frosting (with shortening, make 2 batches) *Again, we only use shortening when the weather is really hot and humid.
marshmallow fondant (recipe below)
no-taste red frosting gel color
yellow frosting gel color
black frosting gel color
Adapted from a post on Wilton.com forums.
microwave safe bowl OR 2-quart pot
rolling pin (for rolling the fondant)
toothpick (for dipping the gel color)
food service gloves
1 cup mini marshmallows, packed well
1 tablespoon water
1-1/2 cups confectioners sugar
black frosting gel color
1. Put the mini marshmallows in the microwave safe bowl and add the water. Cook in the microwave for 20 seconds, just until they soften and look puffy. If you prefer to do it on the stove, put the marshmallows in a 3-quart pot and add the water. Cook and stir over medium-low heat until the marshmallows look soupy.
2. Add the confectioners sugar and stir using the silicone spatula until the mixture is fully incorporated and no longer sticky. It will get stiff.
3. Sprinkle more confectioners sugar on a work surface and spoon the marshmallow mixture onto the surface. Coat your hands with confectioners sugar and knead the dough until it is smooth, about 5 minutes.
4. Set aside a small amount, equal to about 3 peas. Do not tint.
5. GRAY: (Note: Wear the gloves while coloring the fondant.) Add a tiny amount of black gel color a little at a time and knead it in with your hands. Don’t add too much, you want the color to be pale gray. The color will look streaked at first, then will become more consistent as you work it.
6. If you make the fondant a day or more ahead, roll it into balls and wrap each piece tightly in plastic wrap and store in zip plastic bags to keep it fresh. Do not refrigerate. If it’s well-wrapped, this marshmallow fondant will keep at room temperature for up to 30 days.
Make 1-1/2 batches of either recipe.
CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM (with shortening)
Adapted from Wilton.
1/2 cup (1/2 stick/195 g) trans fat free shortening
8 tablespoons (1 stick/113 g) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 ounces (85 g) Ghirardelli 100% cacao baking squares, melted, or 3/4 cup (82 g) cocoa powder, sifted
16 ounces (454 g) confectioners sugar, sifted
2 to 4 tablespoons cold milk (Amount depends on humidity and whether you chose the melted chocolate or cocoa powder.
CHOCOLATE BUTTERCREAM (no shortening)
Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen.
8 ounces (227 g) semi-sweet or dark chocolate, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
pinch of salt
2-1/2 sticks (20 tablespoons/283 g) unsalted butter, softened
2 cups (260 g) confectioners sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
Chocolate Frosting (with shortening) Preparation
1. In the bowl of the stand mixer at medium speed, cream together the shortening and butter until smooth.
2. Add the vanilla extract and melted chocolate and stir until thoroughly combined.
3. Add the sifted confectioners sugar, one cup at a time, scraping down the bowl between each addition.
4. Add the milk one tablespoon at a time, just until the frosting is creamy, not runny. You may not need all the milk. Whip at medium speed for about 1 minute to combine all the ingredients thoroughly.
5. Use promptly or refrigerated with plastic wrap pressed onto the surface. Allow to come to room temperature and whip again before using.
Chocolate Frosting (no shortening) Preparation
1. Stir together the melted chocolate, vanilla, and salt in a bowl until the salt dissolves.
2. In a stand mixer with paddle attachments, beat the butter until it is smooth, about 30 to 60 seconds. In a bowl, whisk together the confectioners sugar and cocoa powder. Reduce the mixer speed to low, then slowly add to the butter, beating until smooth, 2 to 5 minutes.
3. Beat in the melted chocolate mixture. Increase speed to medium-high and beat until fluffy, 4 to 8 minutes.
1. COLOR THE VANILLA BUTTERCREAM: Tint the frosting as you make each batch. (You can do this up to 3 days ahead.) You’ll need the following amounts:
- 1 batch (3 cups) black frosting
- 1/2 batch (1.5 cups) gray frosting
- 1/4 cup (0.75 cups) red frosting
- 1/4 cup (0.75 cups) yellow frosting
- 1/2 batches (1.5 cups) white frosting (only if you want to use between the layers)
2. MAKE THE BASE: Cut the foam into 2 pieces (5 inches x 12 inches/12.5 cm x 30.5 cm), 1 piece (3 inches x 12 inches/12.5 cm x 30.5 cm), and 2 pieces (3 inches x 3 inches/8 cm x 8 cm). Stack them as shown. Wrap masking tape around them to hold together.
3. Cut the cardboard platform piece, wrap in plastic wrap, and place it on top. Use a small hammer to drive two chopsticks through the foam to stabilize the pieces.
4. Coat wheels and base area under the platform with black frosting.
5. Coat the foam layers with gray frosting.
6. Cut each 9×13 cake in half lengthwise and place one half on the cardboard platform. Do this carefully since you have to push the cake over the chopsticks. Apply a layer of frosting, then repeat with two more cake halves. Shave a little cake off the top to give the edges a rounded look. (Not shaved in photo.)
7. Coat the cake layers with chocolate buttercream.
8. TOP: Cut off about 1/3 cup of the fondant and set aside. On a board sprinkled with confectioner sugar, roll the large out the fondant in a 5 x 13-inch rectangle. Trim the edges to square them off, the lay it on top of the cake. Trim as necessary.
9. FACE: On the board, roll out the smaller piece of fondant, making a square about 4 x 4 inches. Trim the edges to square them off. Roll three little pea-sized balls of fondant and place them under the face in the locations for the nose and cheeks. Divide the small piece of white fondant into three equal pieces, then flatten two of them into circles for the eyes. Trim as necessary. Roll the other white piece of fondant into a small snake for the mouth. Lightly dampen the face where the eyes and mouth will go, then gently press them into place, curving the mouth slightly to make Toby smile. Pipe round black circles on the eyes. Dip the end of the popsicle stick, just barely, into the black gel color, then press into the face to make the eyebrows. Poke a chopstick in Toby’s nose to make two nose holes.
10. DETAILS: Fit the piping bags with couplers and tips, then fill each with one of the five different buttercream colors. Pipe the black window, door, end details, and wheel details. Pipe the gray details on the base and the bars on the doors. Pipe the yellow 7, then pipe the red around it. Finally, pipe the chocolate details on the sides and ends. (See the 360 views below.) You can also add the yellow and black details on top, just follow your model.
11. Just before serving, mount the face. Pipe frosting on the back of the face, going around the square about 1/4 inch away from the edge, then fill in the middle. Be careful not to press on the face or it will smoosh. Carefully pick it up and place on the end of the cake, then gently press against the edges and corners to seal it in place.